Scholars presume Paul had been dead for sometime before the author of II Timothy composed today’s second reading. That enables the writer to do for the Apostle what the evangelists did for Jesus in their Last Supper narratives: he creates a “farewell discourse.” Our sacred authors are experts in composing such passages. We find farewell discourses in Scripture’s earliest books. Jacob gathers his children around his death bed in Egypt and delivers one at the end of Genesis; Moses, before his death, is given the whole book of Deuteronomy to say “a few words” to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. A dying person’s words are treasured, especially if that person is treasured by the community.
In words that have echoed in our ears for almost 20 centuries, the writer tells us Paul went to his martyr’s death as a person pleased with his life’s work.” . . . The time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
As a child I couldn’t understand why the Roman Empire killed Christians. They seemed a rather harmless lot. If they were good followers of Jesus they simply went around all day practicing love. Seems any community would have been overjoyed to have them as members.
One needs only read Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire to understand why Christians so quickly ran into problems with the status quo. Their imitation of Jesus led them to craft a vision of the world quite different from that of most of the people around them. Christians were committed to changing much of what Rome wanted to maintain. Clashes were inevitable. Historians tell us that one of the most aggravating issues for the Empire revolved around Christian men’s refusal to be inducted into the army. For the first two and a half centuries of the faith, followers of Jesus actually tried to carry out his Sermon on the Mount commands about retaliation and killing. Conscientious objection, an exception for us, was the rule for them.
But the Christian vision of “how things should be” also clashed with the Roman ideal on lower profile levels. Followers of Jesus simply related to others in a unique way in their daily lives. The class distinctions which had served the Empire well over the centuries were constantly being challenged by Jesus’ disciples.
We hear about some of this uniqueness in our first and third readings. Trying to imitate Yahweh’s personality traits which Sirach mentions, they started to develop a spirit of “egalitarianism” long before the French Revolution popularized the term in 1789. As Sirach states it, “Yahweh is a God of justice who knows no favorites.” Social status or hierarcharical distinctions mean nothing to God. All are equal.
Luke’s Jesus reinforces Sirach’s insight. No two individuals could be on further ends of the religious spectrum than Pharisees and tax collectors. The former observed even the most minute law of Moses, while the latter’s association with Gentiles was a sign he was willing to dump the whole Mosaic code. Jesus and his followers believed their relationship with God was far more important than their relationship with laws.
I often reflect on a significant part of my Grandma’s “farewell discourse.” Aware she was dying, she was in the midst of receiving the Sacrament of the Sick from her care facility’s chaplain, when he asked, “Mary, do you want to go to confession one last time before you die?” She smiled, and, to the priest’s surprise, weakly replied, “No thank you, Father. I went last week. I think that was good enough.”
My grandma’s relationship with Jesus was so tight that she didn’t worry about dotting an eternal “i” or crossing a heavenly “t.” She was unique, in the Christian sense of that word.